Once a person is in recovery, they find that it’s better for them to separate themselves from those they used to abuse substances with. It’s a social identity transition – from that of a person struggling with addiction to that of a person in recovery. This distancing can be hard to manage at first because it’s a change; in fact, some people grieve this process because the substance abuse, the people they’ve used with and the routine they’ve established has become so comforting to them. Along with this social identity change often comes loneliness – just like a person who switches high schools must regain new social connections, a person in recovery will need to adapt to their new recovery environment.
Changes in Recovery: Loneliness
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Dual Diagnosis assessed 316 people who were attending a residential substance abuse treatment center and they found that loneliness was a serious implication for about 69% of the participants. For at least 79% of participants, loneliness was an issue at least once a month – and these feelings of loneliness can add another layer of complexity to one’s adjustment to recovery. In 2017, a young woman shared her story with loneliness – her friends left her side because they were embarrassed of her behavior when she was abusing substances, and she explained that her family kept her at arm’s length because they were so disappointed by her demeanor. She expressed that once she decided to seek out recovery, she connected with people more and focused on herself. She said,
“I learned to separate the feeling of loneliness from the experience of being alone, and eventually started to enjoy my own company.”
Holly Glenn Whitaker, a woman who has struggled with addiction but is now active in her recovery, explained that the beginning of her sobriety journey brought about many bouts of loneliness – and that she had to learn to love herself in the process. She stated,
“Recovery was the first time IN MY LIFE that I started to choose to be with me. It was the first time that I found comfort in my own company. And in that space, that oh-so-sacred space of isolation/solitude/whatever, I found God within me.”
For Holly, recovery gave her a chance to rediscover herself – and she explained that she did this through dance, baths, chant, yoga, reading, crafts and more. 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can be a huge source of support when it comes to loneliness because many people find that not only can they relate to others in the group, but they can find solace in recognizing that the weight of the world isn’t on their shoulders. As human beings, we can only do so much – and we’re not capable of having every aspect of our lives figured out right away.
When loneliness creeps in, we can embrace it just as Holly Glenn Whitaker did – through self-reflection, meditation, activities that spark joy and much more.
Social Support in Recovery
Not only can we learn more about ourselves with this time during recovery, but we can start to make connections with others. 12-Step programs give us an opportunity to participate in weekly group meetings, where we can learn from others’ experiences. In addition to this, we can get to know people so that we can find a sponsor to guide us through sobriety. Loneliness isn’t really about being sad because nobody can be around you – it’s about embracing that you have this free time to learn more about who you are and what you want to do with your life. It’s about connecting with people who will be by your side as you embark on this beautiful journey of recovery. A 2016 study published in the journal Addiction Research & Theory discovered that 12-Step programs such as AA actually foster a social transition and identity change through meaningful activities and social networks that are built. There are many people you can start opening up to during this time, including:
- Your therapist
- A recovery leader
- Peers in your group sessions
- Your family members who support your sobriety
- And more
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) argues that community is one of four major dimensions that support recovery, and that the connections we make can foster support, friendship, love and hope.
Don’t Let Fear of Change Hold You Back from Seeking Help
Change is inevitable in life, and it’s the only way we grow. If we can embrace this early on, we’ll be able to thrive in building a new community of people who want you to live a happier, healthier life. Recognize recovery for the multitude of benefits that it can bring to your life. Rather than being fearful of the loneliness that you may experience in recovery, acknowledge that it’s a much-needed time of transition for anyone who is ready to pursue sobriety. So much growth comes from this experience – and that’s something that you are capable of being a part of.
Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.